Publication Date

May 1, 2011


  • Asia



The past four decades have witnessed a seeming paradox within South Asian historiography: political history has faced a decline, while innovative histories of politics have dramatically increased in number. Those who write such histories of politics typically do not identify themselves as practicing political history; instead, scholars prefer to locate their respective works within such fields as feminist history, social history, cultural history, intellectual history, labor history, environmental history, transnational history, or world history. This is not simply a problem of the changing nature of the taxonomy within the historiography in the second half of the 20th century, but a larger critique of political history’s privileging of narratives of nations, states, political institutions, political organizations, political parties—and their male elites—as the determinate factors in the making of all politics in South Asia. In contrast, the diverse approaches to writing histories of politics consider the “everyday” and “personal” nature of politics as alternatives to studying the past. The result is that the roles of women, minorities, homosexuals, tribals, subalterns, the poor, the disabled, and all other marginal groups, communities, and classes have become central to the way scholars interpret the histories of politics—from antiquity to the modern world.

The story of this shift in the historiography to writing histories of politics without political history (or perhaps against it) is now quite familiar. Of course, South Asian historiography was not unique in its critique of and distancing from political history, as there were parallel movements within other fields of the discipline. The diverse developments in the traditions of history from below, subaltern studies, postcolonial studies, the linguistic turn, and the cultural turn, all provided critiques of political history’s grand narratives and top-down approach.

Scholars engaged in rethinking the idea of the political in history also saw their respective projects as part of a broader political and intellectual commitment. In the U.S. academy, historians often explained that the anti-war movement, the women’s rights movement, the labor rights movement, and the civil rights movement directly influenced their understanding of politics for writing histories. While historians of South Asia made similar claims, the political impetus for the historiography also stemmed from the nature of state authoritarianism, peasant insurgency, postcolonial democracy, communalism, and decolonization. The legacies of Bandung, the Non-alignment movement, global internationalism, South-South solidarity, and anti-imperialism were also cited as informing the historical studies of politics of South Asia in the second half of the 20th century.

However, these earlier political and intellectual contexts—in South Asia and beyond—may not have the same resonance, meaning, or inspiration for historians today. Instead, scholars of South Asia will need to bear in mind the significance of contemporary politics in the 21st century: the emergent Maoist movements from Nepal to southern India, the rise of Hindu nationalism and the pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat, the ongoing conflicts in Kashmir, U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, the migration of millions of peasants into cities, water scarcity, or the legacies of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Further, as earlier generations of historians have demonstrated, the contexts of global events today will also need to be considered for the writing of histories of politics in South Asia.

Certainly, the field of political history has not remained unaffected by the critiques that have emerged over the decades. It is not, after all, a static field. Perhaps what needs to be considered, therefore, are the prospects of pursuing future work that blurs some of the distinctions between the histories of politics and political history. While this melding may not have appeal for all scholars, an argument can be made that such a level of intellectual pluralism is necessary for transforming the historiography of South Asia. Here I am specifically thinking of the work produced by Dalit intellectuals, who have argued for the urgency of writing histories of Dalits (literally meaning “oppressed,” and including those described formerly as “untouchables”). They point to the fact that Dalits have thus far been excluded fromall histories, both political histories and the histories of politics. In fact, even among scholars who claim to write on behalf of the marginalized members of society, there has been a significant silence in considering Dalits in the making of history.

Gopal Guru suggests that this can be explained by the fact that there is a general refusal to consider that Dalits can also occupy a “universal position” as political and historical subjects.1 Kancha Ilaiah further identifies a general indifference to study of Dalits among historians of South Asia, including those scholars who have contributed to the new directions of history writing following the cultural and linguistic turns of the last century.2 Ilaiah posits that there are “blank pages” that are available for interpreting Dalit histories. He argues that the writing of Dalit histories does not need to be limited by a specific methodology or theory; it simply needs to be written. For Ilaiah, what is most important is that the production of knowledge about Dalits is in itself a political act.

Guru and Ilaiah were, in effect, reinforcing and expanding arguments advanced by earlier Dalit intellectuals. In the first half of the 20th century, B. R. Ambedkar, the leader of India’s Dalits, had already voiced concerns about the refusal to acknowledge the role of Dalits in Indian history. As a result, he had promoted the idea of writing a political history of Dalits that started in the ancient world. In the process, Ambedkar proposed to turn the entire historiography upside down by revising every detail of accepted historical knowledge about India. Ambedkar’s critique of India’s history and his attempts to recast it, provide us useful insights into his perceptions of the nature of “political history.” But first, to properly understand Ambedkar’s historiographic perspectives, it is necessary to briefly consider some of the intellectual and political contexts for his writings.

Ambedkar was one of the first Dalits to receive a scholarship to study in the United States. In 1913, he came to Columbia University, where he completed a PhD. He later studied at the London School of Economics in the 1920s, before returning to India to open a law practice and to teach in a law college in Bombay. He soon turned his attention to protecting and expanding the rights of fellow Dalits through his writings, speeches, and public activities, while challenging India’s leading nationalists who had failed to take up the cause of “untouchables.” Indeed, in this period, Ambedkar had famously rejected the arguments of M. K. Gandhi as ultimately serving to perpetuate the caste system that oppressed untouchables.3 Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Ambedkar was the leading political and intellectual figure fighting for the cause of Dalits.

As a result of these activities, Jawaharlal Nehru—India’s first prime minister—appointed Ambedkar as the chair of the committee that drafted India’s constitution. In large part, Ambedkar was thus responsible for instituting legal protections for the rights of Dalits and other minorities against discrimination and persecution in postcolonial India. However, Ambedkar had become increasingly concerned that the constitutional protections were insufficient for securing rights for Dalits. He argued that the oppressive structures and traditions of Hinduism were simply too entrenched to be overcome by legal means alone. As a result, in 1956, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with several hundred thousand Dalits as a rejection of Hinduism.

Ambedkar had also been publishing trenchant critiques of elite forms of Hinduism (namely, Brahminism) while celebrating the egalitarian ethos found in Buddhism.4 Significantly, Ambedkar argued that Buddhism was remarkable because it had provided the main resistance to the domination of Brahminism. Yet, Ambedkar explained, historians had remained silent about the role of the most significant religious battle that defined the history of India: the “mortal conflict” between Buddhism and Brahminism, and in which, as he saw it, lay the roots of Dalit resistance against oppression and discrimination in India. For Ambedkar, this period thus marked the origins of Dalit politics.

Ambedkar began his reconstruction of India’s political history by revising the narrative of the successful invasion of India by Aryan tribes and offered an alternative interpretation. As he phrased it, “The political history of India begins with the rise of a non-Aryan people called Nagas, who were a powerful people, whom the Aryans were unable to conquer, and whom the Aryans were compelled to recognize as their equals.”5 For Ambedkar, the Nagas were essential for their role in resisting the Aryans who brought their religion, culture, and social system of Brahminism that was responsible for oppressing India’s population, including the Dalits. It was the Nagas who made India “great” and “glorious,” not the Aryans, who had dominated the existing narratives of India’s ancient history.

Ambedkar’s death in 1956, shortly after his conversion, meant that his ambitious project to revise India’s political history remained unfinished. However, his prolific writings are full of narratives in which Dalits are at the center of making politics and history. For Ambedkar, it was this political history that had the potential to transform the entire historiography by reframing all the central moments of India’s pasts. In fact, it is something that needs to be taken seriously when thinking about the future of political history in South Asia and beyond.

Ambedkar’s argument about Dalits is only one example of this point. Needless to say, there are many other parallel cases globally. The point is not that we need to return to writing political histories that do not consider the significance of the histories of politics. Instead, we need to take into account the political and intellectual contexts for writing political history and histories of politics in the 21st century. The possibilities are many.


1. Gopal Guru, ed, Humiliation: Claims and Contexts (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009).

2. Kancha Illaih, “Productive Labour, Consciousness and History: The Dalitbahujan Alternative,” Subaltern Studies IX, 165-200.

3. B.R. Ambedkar, “Gandhism: The Doom of Untouchables,” in Writings and Speeches, vol. 9 (Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 1990).

4. B.R. Ambedkar, “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Ancient India,” in Writings and Speeches, vol. 3 (Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 1987).

5. Ambedkar, “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Ancient India.”

Vinayak Chaturvedi is associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. His recent publications include Peasant Pasts: History and Memory in Western India.

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